Nature Notebook, May 4, 2017


If you were up before sunrise this past week, you may have seen Jupiter sparkling in the eastern sky. As I was on my way to Petaluma last Thursday, the planet was particularly brilliant in the clear morning darkness, until it set around 5:30 a.m. 

Just passed is May 1: Beltane in the Celtic calendar, or the beginning of summer, when cattle were taken to upland pastures for fresh fodder. The Eta Aquarid meteor showers continue, and will peak in the east on the night of May 6. The full moon of May 11 will rise with early-morning minus tides. It’s known as the “flower moon” among the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region, denoting the time when the snows begin to melt and flowers bloom.  

If you take a walk through Olema marsh, look out among the swaying cattails and tule grasses for splashes of bright red among the greenery: they might be male red-winged blackbirds. The birds’ shoulder patches of red feathers repel other males from breeding territories, and attract future mates. Typically, the males return before females to the coastal marshes from warmer inland and southern areas. The plain, blackish-brown females choose a mate and his territory in a ratio of one to three females per male. She builds a nest while her competitive mate drives off other males from their homeland. (They communicate with a lovely flute-like whistle!) In the fall, the birds depart for separate male and female winter colonies.   

A singular splashy-yellow native shrub is flowering along Sir Francis Drake, across from the old Shafter place as you head toward Inverness. For a closer look at flannel bush, or California slippery elm (Fremontia californica), visit the native plant garden at Kule Loklo in the national seashore. Its bark was brewed for throat irritations by Coast Miwok. In much greater profusion are the huge stalks of cow parsnip opening up; I always think they look like cauliflowers on a six-foot stem!